Jack Wilshere is at a crossroads. The former England international is out on loan at Bournemouth from Arsenal this season, but despite starting 19 games and picking up two assists, he hasn’t played the full 90 minutes in the past four fixtures.
Amid interest from AC Milan, the 25-year-old will have a decision to make. Arsenal, Bournemouth or a new career in Italy, For a player once deemed to be the future of English football, it could be a case of better the devil you know.
We would love that to happen,” Cherries boss Eddie Howe said when asked about the player’s future. “I can’t rate Jack any higher as a person or a footballer, and how he’s come into the team and what he has delivered for us. But there has been no discussion with Arsenal.”
“As I see it, Jack’s on loan until the summer when we’ll look at it and Jack will look at it. He views this as his home at the moment, until the end of the season. His heart has been here from the day he walked in the door.”
Howe was speaking at the start of February, just after their 6-3 defeat away at Everton. The side from the south set up playing 3-5-1-1 with Wilshere just behind Joshua King. And when Howe plays with a five or six-man midfield, the Arsenal loanee is played from the start.
Can’t Play Every Game for Bournemouth
However, in their last two games, Bournemouth have changed it up, playing a variation of 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, with two sitting midfielders and two more traditional forwards. They beat West Ham United 3-2 and Swansea 2-0.
Against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Spurs, it’s likely that Howe won’t brave the same tactics and Wilshere will be brought in, but it says a lot that the Englishman isn’t given the nod, deemed flexible enough to play in a two.
Wilshere was sent to Bournemouth to show that he could handle the rigours of a Premier League campaign and with an average of 72.1 minutes per game, this is the most he has featured regularly since the 2010/11 campaign.
Although sent out for the right reasons, it didn’t stop Arsène Wenger slightly regretting his departure in January:
“Yes, I could use him now.
“But if he had not played until now, he would not be ready to play now. What looks unfair at some moments in the season is that you know at some stage you could need the player.
“But even at the start you need to have the right balance between competition and numbers and chances for the player to play. And still today I think it was the right decision for him to go.”
Without doubt, the loan move was the right option, but what is unclear, is he still good enough to command a place in the Arsenal midfield?
What Wilshere brings to the midfield
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His intelligence is still there. He may only have two assists, but when he drifted out wide left against the Swans, he had the awareness and the ability to pick out King with a lofted left-foot cross. It was the striker’s header that let Wilshere down.
Against Everton, as Bournemouth held possession, although 3-0 down, Wilshere was eager to get on the ball at every opportunity. For the 30 seconds leading up to his assist, on at least three occasions he was pleading for the pass.
Eventually it broke to the 25-year-old and with Everton sitting deep, he was allowed the time to pick out a run for King. The forward took a touch on the perfectly weighted pass and finished with his left foot.
Yet, Wilshere is a luxury player for a team like Bournemouth. That's even though Howe likes to play the game in the right way. Their average of 51.7 per cent possession this season backs that up. Arsenal average 56.6 per cent.
How does Wilshere match-up?
Arsenal make around 521 short passes per game, that’s third in the Premier League, Bournemouth sit eighth with 392. There are obviously games where they can try and dominate and play a patient passing game, but sometimes they must dig in, battle and scrap with the teams around them. Wilshere isn’t built for that.
If Wenger – or whoever is in charge – continues to play 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 it’s hard to see where the English midfielder fits into the starting line-up.
He’s not defensive enough to challenge, Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny. They are all just as comfortable on the ball, but offer more protection to the defence.
You always don’t want to ask Wilshere to battle in that area of the pitch due to his injury-plagued past.
That leaves the area in front of the midfield anchors, but the doubts remain whether he is at a level to challenge Mesut Özil, the ageing Santi Cazorla and even Aaron Ramsey in that position.
Does Wilshere have a future at Arsenal?
Arsenal have also been strong linked with summer moves for Barcelona’s Arda Turan, Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli and Southampton’s Dusan Tadic. All great options and would give the German international the competition and competitive fight he so desperately needs to help him rediscover his spark.
Wilshere doesn’t offer too much of an upgrade in terms of key passes per 90 minutes. His number of short passes is below the others, but out of the players the Gunners currently have, he does beat more opponents off the dribble.
That said, his numbers are for Bournemouth and not a team vying for a spot in the Champions League. There is enough to suggest that he would have the time and space on the ball to create and fashion more chances in a better team.
That pass against Everton, finding the run of King, would suit the likes of Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud. They all make similar and varied runs across the face of centre-backs and Wilshere still has the range to find them.
A move to Italy must be tempting, start a new chapter, a new life and a new opportunity. Plus, the reduced tempo of Serie A is custom made for his style of play. Yet, there will be part of him that believes he could challenge for a place in the Arsenal XI.
His abilities may not be quite strong enough to command a starting spot in every game. As Wenger alluded to in January, he would give the Gunners a brilliant option and that could be enough to keep him in North London next season.
Out of contract in 2018, a free transfer to Italy or somewhere else might then give Wilshere more options. Both in England and abroad, plus another 12 months to prove he still has the class to change a game at the highest level.